The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will open a 60-day public comment period Friday on fresh documents meant to revive the Nebraska Public Power District’s dormant R-Project.
The agency’s Denver-based Mountain-Prairie Region said comments will be taken until April 9 on a “revised habitat conservation plan” submitted by NPPD and a draft “supplemental environmental impact statement.”
Neither document was immediately available to The Telegraph Thursday afternoon. The press release said public comments may be submitted through the regulations.gov website, using docket number FWS-R6-ES-2014-0048.
Fish and Wildlife plans to host two in-person meetings in February and a virtual public meeting in March, the agency’s press release added.
No dates or locations for those meetings were immediately available through the agency’s R-Project webpage at fws.gov/project/r-project-transmission-line.
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First proposed by NPPD in 2014, the R-Project refers to a desired 226-mile-long, 345-kilovolt transmission line jogging alternately north and east from the district’s Gerald Gentleman Station south of Sutherland to a substation near Thedford.
From there, the proposed transmission line would run east to connect to an existing Western Area Power Administration line on the eastern edge of Holt County.
Sandhills residents have been in the vanguard of opposition to the R-Project, saying it would threaten the region’s fertile but fragile topsoil, harm endangered whooping cranes and other birds using North America’s “central flyway” and facilitate the spread of wind turbines throughout their area.
Fish and Wildlife issued an “incidental take permit” to NPPD on June 12, 2019, that granted permission for the project and approved the district’s plans to relocate endangered American burying beetle populations expected to be disturbed by R-Project construction.
But U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez of Denver overturned the permit on June 17, 2020, writing in part that Fish and Wildlife “inadequately considered the effects of the R-Project on the O’Fallon’s Bluff segment of the Oregon and California Trail” near Sutherland.
Gerald Gentleman sits south of a series of “swale” depressions cut into the South Platte River bluffs by thousands of wagons and hundreds of thousands of people traveling the Oregon and California trails from 1843 to 1866. The R-Project’s power lines would run directly over some of the swales.
Martinez’s ruling also said Fish and Wildlife failed to analyze “potential wind-turbine development” in Antelope County near the line’s planned eastern terminus. His decision sent the R-Project matter back to Fish and Wildlife for further consideration.
The challenge leading to Martinez’s ruling was filed by the Oregon-California Trails Association, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and the Hanging H East and Whitetail Farms East ranches between Paxton and Sutherland.
Thursday’s Fish and Wildlife press release said NPPD worked with the federal agency “to incorporate new information” obtained since Martinez vacated the incidental take permit.
NPPD’s revised Habitat Conservation Plan “includes a risk evaluation for whooping cranes, potential impacts on cultural and historic resources and potential effects from renewable energy projects related to the R-Project,” it said.
At a July 2018 public hearing in North Platte, Lincoln County historians and tourism groups urged Fish and Wildlife to require an alternate route running away from the Oregon-California Trail swales instead of over them.
NPPD said in the immediate wake of the judge’s ruling that it remained committed to the R-Project route as originally laid out.